By Alyssa Adkins
The visual medium of cartoon art has been around for centuries in various forms. One of the most well-known is comics – a series of drawings, usually accompanied by words, that when viewed in order tells a story. But there are many ideas out there as to what makes a comic, and depending on who you ask, you’ll likely get a different answer. Does there have to be action? Does there have to be a narrative? How many pictures make a strip? Can there be just one? For as long as the comic has been around it has been ever changing. From its humble beginnings as a morning staple of the newspaper comic strip to the beloved comic book, and now to the increasingly popular online webcomics, the medium has evolved to fit modern entertainment.
The state of Ohio is more than familiar with the art of comics. Last year, Superman—arguably the most famous comic book superhero— celebrated
his 75th birthday. Many would be surprised to find out that the “man of steel” was thought up by two teenage boys growing up in 1930s Cleveland. The first incarnation of Superman was in a self-published fanzine by the boys in 1933. The Superman we know today wouldn’t appear until 1938, after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to DC Comics. Superman would be the first major success story of self-publishing comics in Ohio. Since that time, many more creators have taken up the mantle to carry on Ohio’s tradition of cartoon art.
Visitors of S.P.A.C.E (Small Press & Alternative Comics Expo) this past April were offered the chance to meet many of the people working in the industry in Ohio, and to find out why Columbus in particular is so great for comics and the artists and writers who create them.
As visitors walked the aisles of fold-out tables lined with comic books ranging from four for a dollar at one booth all the way to 25 dollars for a single volume at another, many found themselves immersed and yet on the fringe all at once. One exhibitor shouted across the hall a happy birthday wish to another. Another exhibitor excitedly proclaimed their love for the work of the patron at their table. Exhibitors found time to visit one another; to find out at which convention their fellow comic artists and publishers will be next so they can see them again; to ask when the next volume of their series will be out. This is a community of people who share more than the love of comics. They share support. They share goals and ambitions. They’re each other’s best friends, biggest fans—and closest competition.
To those who thought the Columbus comics community was a sleeping giant waiting for its time; it is now wide awake.
It has been proven that a thriving arts community creates economic impact. However, comics are a special breed of art; they’re almost a hybrid.
Accessibility is key to what makes Columbus so popular for artists and comics alike.
“Everyone will always need entertainment,” explained Columbus native, Victor Dandridge, from his exhibitor booth at S.P.A.C.E. Dandridge is president and editor-in-chief of Vantage:Inhouse Productions. “And Columbus’ diverse arts scene makes it possible for self-published comics to thrive,” he said. “It’s because there’s such a wide array of arts in Columbus that there can be such a wide array of comics. Unlike other major comic
Reasons for coming to Columbus vary between artists. Some came for school; the Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) is a big draw. And some of these artists have never left. Others, like artist Colleen Clark, moved here to find the comic community more inviting than other regions of the country. Columbus gives comic artists more opportunities.
It’s not just the fellow comic artists and Ohio’s long history of cartoon art began with the humorist forerunners in the early 20th century who paved the way for today’s artists. Among the notable names to appear in ink were Frederick Burr Opper and Billy Ireland. The latter has become a beloved figure of Columbus. The former has been regarded nationally as one of the pioneers of American newspaper comic strips. Opper, of Madison, Ohio, gained international notoriety from his work in The New York Journal, as well as for his political cartoons. writers who make the city of Columbus so welcoming to other creators. If not for the bridges that have been built between the city and the community, comics in Columbus could have slipped through the cracks. But Columbus as a city has continued to promote its rich history of comics, and to support the current group of creators. Billy Ireland worked at the Columbus Dispatch until his death in 1935. His weekly cartoons became a mainstay of Columbus life, showcasing the daily ins and outs of life in the capital city and university campus. Beyond his own work for the Columbus Dispatch, he also encouraged Milton Caniff of Hillsboro, Ohio, to follow his love of comics even after the Great Depression hit.
Caniff is best known for his work Terry and the Pirates as well successful war themed comics including Male Call and Steve Canyon, which he produced during the Second World War and the Korean War respectively. Another well-known figure of Columbus cartoons, who like Caniff moved to New York after attending The Ohio State University, is James Thurber. He enjoyed a position at the New Yorker until he left to work in theater in 1935. His childhood home was turned into the Thurber House museum and bookstore. The Thurber House, with support from The Columbus Foundation and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, presents the The Thurber Prize for American Humor each year–the only recognition of the art of humor writing in the United States.
The foundation of the comic community in Columbus has been preserved within the walls of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Started in 1977 by a donation of personal material by Milton Caniff (for whom the library and museum was originally name), the establishment currently holds more than 300,000 original cartoons; 45,000 books; 67,000 serials; 3,000 linear feet of manuscript materials; 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages. It’s the largest and most comprehensive academic research facility documenting printed cartoon art, as well as holding the world’s largest collection of comic strip tear sheets and clippings.
The library offers a unique advantage to the comic community in Columbus. It works as a direct source for comic creators, and an indirect benefactor to stimulate traffic to the city. Not only is the library an archive of the past, available for viewing to provide inspiration for the future, but the library and museum is a huge draw for comic enthusiasts. From across the country and beyond, people have traveled to tour the museum and look into the archives, not just during the annual comic festival, but throughout the year.
Signs that the comic community in Columbus is growing are evident. Bob Corby, who runs S.P.A.C.E., noted that the number of exhibitors since 2000, the first year of the expo, has more than doubled. He wasn’t sure whether it’s because there are new artists in Columbus or that because the local comics community is gaining national acclaim and that older, established artists are coming out of the wood work to join them. Either way he’s happy with it.
Columbus has seen multiple success stories of local self-publishing comic creators who have found their way to the popular stage. Jeff Smith, who was raised here and still resides in Columbus, created the nationally-acclaimed comic series, Bone. Smith has won several Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards and Harvey Awards for achievement in comic books. Attempts have been made, including by Nickelodeon Movies and Warner Brothers Pictures, to turn the comics into film but as of yet it is still in the works. Additionally, Smith has worked for DC Comics and was the center of a 2009 documentary about his life and work.
Michael Neno, another prominent central Ohio cartoonist worked for Dark Horse Comics in the late 1990s. He’s also an illustrator for the Columbus-based Nix Comics under lead editor and writer Ken Eppstein. Nix Comics Quarterly is a rock `n roll horror anthology first published in 2011. Eppstein, who recently received an artist supply grant for his work from the Greater Columbus Arts Council, utilizes self-publishing ingenuity by presenting his comics not just for the “comic fan” but for lovers of music and literary horror. Nix Comics are popular with the local “in the know” crowd of comic book lovers and have recently attracted national attention.
It’s not just the comic history that makes Columbus a prime place for self-published comics. Many of the creators interviewed for this story mentioned that the city itself is ideal for a comic creator.
“[Columbus] is just the right mix, and the right size…,” commented Dara Naraghi, who also worked for DC Comics and Dark Horse and is the writer of Persia Blues. “The smaller metropolis allows artists the benefits of an urban audience with the appeal of low cost and mobility. Not to mention they cut down on travel expenses because of all the conventions right in Ohio.”
Lora Innes, writer and illustrator of the webcomic, The Dreamer, pointed out that one of the things that makes Columbus great for comics and the artists is its large young adult population. Students and recent alumni still in the city are the perfect target range for comics.
Ohio is well known for its sports teams, the Wright brothers, and as a swing state come election season. The state doesn’t often claim its comic heritage, nor boast being the birthplace of the world-famous comics Superman and Calvin and Hobbes (even though both are true). Yet, in the darkened corners of the comic book shops and under the florescent lights of the convention centers, artists, writers, publishers and fans have taken up the torch of Ohio’s comic tradition. With the support of each other and the gaining interest of the masses, Ohio’s comic community looks to have a bright future.
Feature image: from Lora Innes’ webcomic, The Dreamer.
Events coming up this year that will interest comic and cartoon art fans:
Internationally renowned comic book artist Daniel Clowes is at the center of two exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts this spring and summer: Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, the first-ever survey of Clowes’s extensive body of work, and Eye of the Cartoonist: Daniel Clowes’s Selections from Comics History, an exhibition curated by Clowes. Both exhibitions will be on view at the Wexner Center May 17–August 3, 2014. Clowes is one of the most renowned comic book artists of our time, with nearly fifty publications to his credit. His acclaimed comics—including Ghost World (1997), David Boring (1999) and Wilson (2010), among others—have been instrumental in establishing literary credibility for the genre.Columbus is the final stop for Modern Cartoonist, which made its premiere at the Oakland Museum of California, and features more than 90 pieces of original art and artifacts from the full range of Clowes’s career. Eye of the Cartoonist is drawn from the collection of Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
Exploring Calvin and Hobbes – the work of Bill Waterson, and The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object: A Retrospective of Richard Thompson will both on exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum through August 3.
2014 Ohio Comic-Con, October 31-November 2
Alyssa Adkins served as an intern for the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Marketing, Communications & Events department. She is a recent graduate (class of spring 2014) of The Ohio State University, with a degree in English and minors in professional writing and popular culture where she was introduced to Columbus’ diverse self-publishing comic community and Ohio’s comic history. She herself is a fan of such works as the comic book version of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and the various publications of Deadpool (excluding the 2009 film version, she won’t talk about that).
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